The Favor - Directed by Eva S. Aridjis.
When his childhood sweetheart (Paige Turco) dies in an accident, Lawrence (Frank Wood) becomes the guardian of Johnny, her rebellious 16-year old son, (Ryan Donowho). Johnny flirts with Mariane (Isidra Vega) while spending the rest of his time cutting school and selling/using drugs. Both Frank Wood and Ryan Donowho sink into their roles gracefully and convincingly. The scenes when they interact with one another feel quite intense and moving thanks to the well-written screenplay by writer/director Eva S. Aridjis. Each character comes to life on the screen with all of their flaws intact—they’re neither likable nor unlikable, but just simply human. Eva S. Aridjis does a terrific job of keeping the drama often nuanced without going over-the-top or including any contrived scenes. Moreover, the romance between Johnny and Mariane feels authentic and organic rather than corny or forced like in most dramas nowadays. With its gently moving, character-driven plot and a very well-chosen soundtrack to enhance the tone of crucial scenes, The Favor manages to be concurrently engrossing and compelling.
Fugitive Pieces - Directed by Jeremy Podeswa.
Based on the novel by Anne Michaels. Jakob (Stephen Dillane) had rough childhood when he was separated from his sister and witnessed his family getting murdered during the Holocaust back in 1942. When Athos (Rade Sherbedgia), the man who found and protected him, dies, he revisits those childhood memories and goes through a mid-life crisis. Naturally, he feels emotionally detached from his present wife, Alex (Rosamund Pike), so he seeks comfort in Michaela (Ayelet Zurer). Although the performances are decent and some scenes feel poignant, the plot as a whole lacks the emotional pull to be thoroughly engrossing and heartbreaking. The way writer/director Jeremy Podeswa blends the flashback sequences with the present day ones comes across as awkward and diminishes the film’s momentum. Moreover, the screenplay moves a long in a rather pedestrian fashion with not enough character development so that you truly care about what happens to Jakob. A recent film called Live and Become also tackles the plot of a grown-up character who tries to overcome the painful memories from his past. That film felt very warm, organic and very human while, by contrast, Fugitive Pieces feels cold, calculated and underwhelming. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Hollywood Chinese - Directed by Arthur Dong.
This mildly fascinating documentary traces the evolution of how the Chinese are depicted on the silver screen from 1916 until today. Director Arthur Dong clearly did a lot of research on the topic because he includes many clips from a variety of Chinese-American films ranging from Curse of the Quon Gwon, Flower Drum Song, The World of Suzie Wong, Xiu Xiu, The Joy Luck Club, Better Luck Tomorrow, and Brokeback Mountain. It’s somewhat interesting to listen to interviews with writers, directors and actors/actresses such as Joan Chen, Ang Lee, Justin Lin as they briefly discuss how their films were received and what they represent about Chinese culture in Hollywood. Non-film buffs would find all of the footage quite intriguing and the interviews enlightening, but regular film buffs familiar with all of those films won’t get enough insight to keep them thoroughly intrigued. Ultimately, Hollywood Chinese illuminates important issues about minorities in Hollywood, but leaves more exploration of those issues to be desired. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Deep Focus Productions. Opens at the Quad Cinema.
Iron Man - Directed by Jon Favreau.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) works as a wealthy inventor and co-owner of Stark Industries, a weapons manufacturer for the U.S army. When Tony gets kidnapped in Afghanistan, he builds himself a suit of armor made out of iron that repels shrapnel and flies into the air like a rocket. His decision to stop Stark Industries from producing and selling weapons forces its co-owner, Obadiah (Jeff Bridges), to do anything in his power to stop him—even by getting his own suit of armor to turn into Iron Monger. What follows is a rousing action film that never ceases to thrill. At its core, Robert Downey, Jr.’s charismatic and even somewhat humorous performance as Tony/Iron Man that allows you to root for him from start to finish. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Tony’s assistant/love interest and Terrence Howard, as Tony’s best friend/advisor, round out the terrific supporting cast. Even when the plot becomes the standard Good (Iron Man) vs. Evil (Iron Monger), director Jon Favreau keeps the pace moving rapidly and includes plenty of stunning CGI effects and action sequences that’ll make you feel like you’re watching last year’s equally entertaining Transformers all over again. Iron Man effectively blasts off the summer blockbuster season and will leave you hungry for Iron Man 2. Be sure to stay through the end credits for an additional scene. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Paramount Pictures.
Made of Honor - Directed by Paul Weiland.
When Hannah (Michelle Monaghan), the love of his life, gets engaged, Tom (Patrick Dempsey) tries to win her over by becoming her maid of honor. The wedding takes place in Scotland, where the affluent family of Colin (Kevin McKidd), Hannah’s fiancé, resides. Michelle Monaghan’s radiant performance along with Patrick Dempsey’s overall appeal elevates the film make it breezy and charming. Just because the plot feels predictable doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. Anyone who watches the average romantic comedy knows to expect a predictable plot to begin with. Screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont include enough comic relief to keep the romance and comedy genres in balance. Sure, a few moments feel cheesy and there aren’t any particularly memorable lines, but compared to recent most romantic comedies nowadays, such as Definitely, Maybe, Over Her Dead Body and P.S. I Love You, Made of Honor, at a running time of 101 minutes, manages to be quite watchable without too many uncomfortable moments or scenes that drag. Just be sure to suspend your disbelief before watching it. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Columbia Pictures.
Mister Lonely - Directed by Harmony Korine.
A Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) who takes him to a Scottish commune where her children—dressed as Shirley Temple and Charlie Chaplin—stay at along with other impersonators. The unpredictable plot is filled with crazy, wild, totally unconventional characters in very bizarre situations. Have you ever seen skydiving nuns fall through the sky and crash, intact, onto the ground? That’s just one of the many imaginative surprises in Mister Lonely. At times, the excessive weirdness comes across as pretentious, tedious and headache-inducing, but if you’re familiar with Harmony Korine’s earlier films such as Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, you’ll understand his vision. Whether or not you can actually tolerate and be entertained by his vision depends on how open-minded your taste in film is. Not much happens here that truly makes sense, which will irritate those accustomed to or expecting a conventional plot with conventional characters. Everyone else will be wildly entertained as if on an acid trip that can only be experienced, but not explained. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by IFC First Take. Opens at the IFC Center.
Redbelt - Directed by David Mamet.
Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu-jitsu instructor, becomes heavily indebted after an attorney, Laura (Emily Mortimer), enters his workplace and accidentally shoots a window with the gun of a cop (Max Martini). Desperate to pay off his escalating debts, Mike tries to get a job in the film business when he meets Chet (Tim Allen), an actor, but that doesn’t go exactly as planned. A fight promoter, Marty (Ricky Jay), persuades him to fight in a televised martial arts tournament, but he’ll only get paid if he loses the secretly fixed fight. Despite a terrific performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the plot never really gels into a believably compelling drama. Writer/director David Mamet certainly has a knack for writing an intelligent script with full of zingers, but here the dialogue seems awkward and stilted. Mamet fails to find the right combination of tones to hold your attention for 98 minutes. It’s actually quite refreshing to see Tim Allen in a more serious role than usual, although he doesn’t really have enough material to stand out as much as Chiwetel does. Much of the dramatic tension fizzles out by the time the convoluted and slightly ludicrous third act comes along. Ultimately, Redbelt fails to pack any real punches and leaves you feeling underwhelmed. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Viva - Directed by Anna Biller.
In 1972, Barbi (Anna Biller), a suburban housewife abandoned by her overworked husband, Rick (Chad England), escapes boredom by participating in a variety of sexual adventures along with her best friend, Sheila (Bridget Brno), who also left her husband, Mark (Jared Sanford). When Barbi enters the world of sexual liberation, her new name is Viva and she loves to disrobe. It ironically takes strong acting skills to give such purposefully stilted, awkward performances which are iconic of 70s sexploitation films. Each time a character opens his or her mouth, the way they say their lines along with their body language makes you feel like they’re winking at you to join in on their fun. Writer/director Anna Biller expertly weaves the playful, sexual innuendo/dialogue with equally playful behavior among the characters while never veering toward hardcore porn—any truly raunchy images are left for your imagination. Fans of 70s sexploitation films will feel as though they’ve stepped into a time warp as they observe the impressive production design: stylish, brightly colored set/costumes, old-fashioned hairdos, and, of course, lots and lots of glorious nudity. At a running time of 120 minutes, Viva has so much eye candy—-and ear candy, for that matter—-that it never overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Vagrant Films Releasing. Opens at the Cinema Village.
XXY - Directed by Lucía Puenzo.
In Spanish with subtitles. Alex (Ines Efron), a 15-year-old hermaphrodite, struggles with a sexual identity crisis when she enters a sexual relationship with 16-year-old Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky). Alvaro’s father (German Palacios) happens to be a plastic surgeon who can help Alex become 100% female with corrective surgery. Ricardo Darin plays Alex’s supportive and loving father. What follows is a surprisingly tender and endearing drama that’s almost as powerful as Boys Don’t Cry, which treads the same water. Ines Efron delivers a raw performance that demands your attention. She masters a wide range of emotions from frustration to lust to just plain confusion. Her scenes with Alvaro feel particularly intense and moving, especially given how Alvaro questions his own sexuality as well. Writer/director Lucía Puenzo includes lush, exquisite cinematography along with lighting and moves the pace slowly which enhances the overall sad tone of the film. A few scenes drag a bit in the second act, but much of the plot is unpredictable and surprising. Released by Film Movement. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Opens at the Cinema Village.